New season, big changes

TV companies are promising bigger and better things for the new season, but Simon Tyers is not so sure they'll deliver

Televised football is, like Tottenham, undergoing a transitional phase. Setanta have not so far met their customer-base predictions, but start 2008-09 with their strongest hand yet in terms of live games. This despite not having yet found a permanent first-choice commentator, Jon Champion still being on loan from ITV, nor a notable accomplice. Craig Burley has clearly set out to be the new Andy Gray, but hasn’t bothered to develop tactical nous or a commanding commentary-box presence. Instead, he has gone straight for the unshakeably dour, moaning persona Gray has been perfecting of late.

Sky have reacted with their sole new addition for this season, the highly unpromising (and probably to be quietly dropped before Christmas) Off The Bar. This involves Matt Lorenzo hosting a betting-based discussion show, the entire premise of which is that it’s filmed in an otherwise lifeless Wetherspoons-style pub. As the first programme had Tony Gale as the star guest plus a pre-recorded chat with Alec Stewart, at least they’re not setting their sights high.

Soccer AM, meanwhile, has some changes that are big by the standards of a long immoveable format. They have altered the titles, moved the set fittings around a bit and replaced presenter Andy Goldstein with Max Rushden, who has even less charisma but from his crop and leisurewear you suspect has been selected as “one for the ladies”, an option producers tend to go for when they’ve long run out of ideas.

Like Setanta, ITV are promising their biggest and boldest season of live action in some time, now they have the FA Cup and England’s competitive home games. Meanwhile, with Rider, Doyle and Smith taking up the top jobs Jim Rosenthal has packed and left for Five’s revival of Superstars, which involves working with the negligible light-­entertainment stylings of Steve Redgrave and ­introducing ­endless rounds of indoor climbing, not hitherto thought of as a feast made for television. As with most of these flawed revivals, the producers are hoping the viewer has a permanent little voice in their ears going “Brian Jacks’ squat thrusts! Kevin Keegan falling off his bike!” as they serve up Lee Sharpe on a basketball court in front of some bored children.

The BBC have been painted as the big losers, with no live football at all this season bar a late grab of Arsenal’s Champions League qualifying second leg, but at least they still have TV’s foremost footballing brand. Match of the Day has been accused, with reason, of being a golfing-partner old-pals’ act, a criticism that has generated a Fergusonesque siege mentality among the on-screen team. As early as the first programme Alan Shearer, on asked who his title tip was, told us: “I’ve changed my mind, I’m going for Chelsea.” Gary Lineker replied: “Change your mind? It’s the first time you’ve told us.” With Shearer settling comfortably into the ­middle-of-the-road role Trevor Brooking once made his own, it’s left to Mark Lawrenson to cultivate what he sees as his role as the loose cannon of sports punditry. What this entails is his being the last man in Britain to unironically tag sentences with “…not!” There are children watching the Sunday repeat who weren’t born when Wayne’s World was in cinemas.

At least Football Focus got to start the season with a slab of history, as Hull chairman Paul Duffen rang a bell that had been installed at the KC Stadium with the instruction that it should not be touched until the club were playing in the Premier League. Duffen’s dedication to “generations of the Tiger Nation who never got to see this day” was broadcast to generations of people not seeing it now, either, with Great Britain winning gold after gold over on BBC1.

This is Manish Bhasin’s fifth season in charge of the show, and in all that time he’s still not worked out how to end a discussion with the studio pundits in a way other than “yeah, OK”. Bhasin was absent from the majority of the BBC Euro 2008 coverage and the thought has probably crossed his mind that the show’s host in Austria, Jake Humphrey, may be planning a raid on his territory. Would it be scary to have a major TV football presenter who, not 30 until October, is younger than some of the players he’s discussing? Only time will tell.

From WSC 260 October 2008